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    The 30-Day Challenge

  • Sharon Olson, president of Olson Communications, tests her will and waistline in a month-long experiment in which she only eats food from the top quick serves in the nation.


    There was a lot of good food out there and a fair amount of good value fuel that did not suit my taste. But no matter what I was hungry for, service is what made the difference. I visited many restaurants as I traveled around Chicago, Northern California, and Texas. I was obviously a “tourist” in many of the locations I visited—taking forever to review the menuboard, asking lots of questions about the items, and just plain looking out of place.

    I encountered a fair amount of wrong orders based as much on my lack of knowing the right language as the listening skills of the crew, but some of the recoveries were nothing short of heroic. Even at places I tried more for this experiment than my personal taste would normally allow I found fast and friendly service. Inconsistency is the thing that moved some of my favorites down a notch. Yet the welcome experiences dazzled me and overshadowed the disappointments.

    I had never been to a Jack in the Box and my California trip gave me the chance to see if the experience lived up to that unforgettable advertising. I ordered a steak snack wrap on my first visit. I brought it back to my hotel to enjoy and discovered it was fried fish and not steak. The next day I returned and asked for the steak wrap and mentioned that my order was wrong the day before. In a move meant for the training handbooks, the woman who took my order remembered me, apologized, gave me a free wrap, and offered me a complimentary beverage while I waited. Talk about a heroic recovery! I returned the next day for a teriyaki bowl, and think I will again when I am out west.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I was dining at one of my favorites an hour before closing and the staff started cleaning the dining room, turning chairs upside down until we were the only ones left in the dining area with a forest of table legs all around us. We ate quickly and left half an hour before closing—the staff smiled and bid us good afternoon, not even knowing they had chased us out.

    “The thing I learned at Jason’s Deli was that I did not have to settle when it came to a deli sandwich.”

    Chipotle, on the other hand, welcomed me with friendly smiles when I entered a downtown Chicago store one day two minutes after official closing time. I visited many Chipotle units and found the service consistently warm and welcoming. I learned not long ago that the manager of one unit invited the residents of a nearby assisted-living facility in for free lunch. My mom was among the guests (she loved the crispy carnitas tacos and the chips). That was a nice story I’ve shared dozens of times.

    I normally visit a particular Einstein once a month, so I was a little familiar to the staff. Late one afternoon I brought in my husband for lunch, and he was astonished when the cashier called out “Hi, Sharon” when I walked in the door. How cool is that?

    I became a regular at another unit with great food just two doors down. They never remembered even my face, certainly not my name. One day, the cook sneezed on my food as he prepared it, looked at me waiting, and served it up anyway. When I made a mistake about where to find my premium bottled soft drink, the cashier treated me like an idiot instead of a misunderstood customer who just didn’t get the system.

    One of the most surprising service slights occurred when I asked for a cup for water after I ordered a full dinner meal for four at another chain. The cashier who looked like an owner/operator said no. He seemed so nice, I thought I misunderstood him and asked again. He simply smiled kindly, and said, “No ma’am.”

    White Castle had a small plaque on the wall near the entrance with its simple, customer-relevant promise. I liked it because it was plain spoken and true to my experiences in the store.

    I am one to lament the fact that technology can increase efficiency, yet disable good service. Not so with Domino’s. When we ordered pizza for the office, I learned that we could track the progress of our delivery person online, so we knew how our pizza was doing on its journey to us, and we even got the driver’s name. That was fun, and it made a normal wait seem like no time at all.

    It’s Always about the Food

    I discovered a new chain on the QSR 50 during my month-long experiment: Jason’s Deli. I was awestruck on my first visit. Real fresh food, lots of colors, and free soft serve ice cream! I wanted to say, “Wake me up, I must be dreaming!” I thought my selection of produce was going to be limited to lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and apples. I admit I dined here many times and ordered a lot of take out to supplement my other meals with fresh produce.

    The other thing I learned from Jason’s was that I did not have to settle when it came to a deli sandwich. There was a real difference in the quality of deli meat—if you close your eyes and eat turkey, it should taste like turkey, and beef like beef, not some watery protein flavor that could be almost any deli meat. I felt pampered and enlightened.

    Quiznos also offered up a quality sandwich, hot, fresh, and fast with steak that was really steak. I also like the recommendations I had from the employee when I asked about the food; it was clear he knew it, had eaten it, and liked it.